Audio transcript

The heiress Elizabeth Watson, married Sir William Pope in December 1615 and it’s thought that this portrait of her was painted to mark the event. As it had been in the previous century, English painting at this time remained reliant on a complex visual code of symbols that educated contemporary viewers would have understood.

Lady Elizabeth sits beneath a laurel tree in an English landscape. She’s dressed for a masque, the spectacular theatrical events put on at court which although they often held allegorical or political meaning, were primarily sumptuous evenings of music, drama and dancing, for which both actors and aristocratic audience dressed in extravagant costumes. This helps to explain the way Lady Elizabeth looks – that her hair is worn loose tells us that she’s a virginal bride, but to modern eyes her dress and demeanour are far from innocent. Such fashions and behaviour, that would have not been considered respectable elsewhere in society, were permitted in the narrow and elite world of the court; a mark in fact, of the privileged nature of life around the monarch.

Lady Elizabeth’s face is fashionably pale with pink cheeks and red lips, as befitted a Jacobean beauty; it’s without shadow and there’s little suggestion of the bone structure beneath. The pearls on her mantle and cap are ornately worked into the shape of ostrich feathers – like the real ostrich feathers, dyed purple, on her cap. This could mean that she is dressed in a costume that represents the recently ‘discovered’ continent of America, where her father’s colonial trade interests were the source of the family’s wealth.

Lady Elizabeth’s jewellery shows the technical painting skill of Robert Peake, who had, like many other British painters of the time, originally trained as a goldsmith. Her pearl choker would have been incredibly rare and costly, and as well as showing her wealth, pearls were often used as symbols of purity. Her heavy diamond necklace reinforces her status and also attracts attention to the fleshy beauty of her bared breasts.

Although this portrait offers so much visual information, very little is known about Lady Elizabeth’s own life: she was probably still in her teens at the time of this marriage portrait; we know that she was to have three sons, and married again after Sir William Pope died; but the dates of her own birth and death are not recorded.